I’m racist. So are you. I didn’t know that I was until I, a pākehā women, began a relationship with a Māori man and began to see how this country treats its indigenous people every day and in every way.
My partner of three years is a striking man. He has the prominent muscles of someone who has spent 30 years of his life as a tradie and the boxer’s swagger of a survivor. His left eye is milky and scarred and sightless as the result of a grisly accident with a hammer on a building site, though most who see him assume it’s the result of some kind of street fight.
As of a few weeks ago, the blank eye is now framed by a tā moko, calling even more attention to his injury by surrounding it with flowing koru that tell the story of Tāne and his three kete of knowledge. The lines drawn by the tā moko artist make even more sense of his beautiful face and all who have seen it have said it’s like it has always been there. Before he got it he said to me “people always stare anyway, might as well give them something to look at”.
His smile doesn’t just light up a room. When he enters the café, the restaurant or the dairy in the small Coromandel village we live in, it’s like the sun just appeared for the first time. I joke that he’s the mayor of the Coromandel as the people he has lived among for years clamber over each other to greet him and be enveloped in one of his famous bear hugs. An old friend who went all through school with him told me once that he’s been giving these hugs since he was a kid, and I often picture him as the burly tough boy he was, wrapping his small arms around his friends to express his love.
One of his whanau recently described him to me as the 'scariest teddy bear', which is so accurate that I couldn’t breathe for laughing, and when I told him, he slapped his knees and doubled over, both eyes closed in blissful mirth.
We work as cultural passports for each other, allowing entry into spaces we might otherwise not be welcomed.
My welcome into his world is always unconditional and all consuming. If I enter the marae with him, or attend a tangi, or a wedding, or a whānau dinner, I am instantly wrapped in a whirlwind of kisses and hugs. Introductions are hardly ever made. I am accepted as whānau and that is instantly enough. Conversations are continued as if I wasn’t there or as if I had always been there, context isn’t given, explanations are not made; as I am now whānau I should just know. Please understand that this is nothing akin to rudeness but rather the opposite: I am whānau, I am part of it, I should understand all context via osmosis and if I don’t, it will come in time.
I am always someone who strives to be liked, but my charm manufactured in the pākehā world holds no purchase here. Whānau don’t care that I’m well-read or about my opinion on world politics. They care about what is happening right now, in this room.
They like my sense of humour, that I am self-effacing and that I give my partner plenty of shit. I play up to this so hard that sometimes I wonder if they think I’m going to take us both out in a murder-suicide.
My role as his passport into the pākehā world is a far more shameful transaction. As a blonde pākehā who speaks as though she has spent her life surrounded by nice middle class white folk, I allow people to relax when they see me place my hand on his back.
At a petrol station once, I went inside to use the loo and then pay while he pumped the gas. When I came out of the bathroom, the three (pākehā) people behind the counter were all staring fixedly out the window. None of them looked at me, and they continued their conversation about how he was probably going to drive off without paying and should one of them go out to keep a closer eye on him? My voice shaky with rage, I informed them that I was there to pay for the gas. They barely even looked guilty and one of them blandly asked me if I would like to join their loyalty club. I’d love to say I gave them a huge serve about racism in Aotearoa but anger makes me extremely ineloquent so instead I said something about not wanting the loyalty card as I wouldn’t be coming back and exited without saying thank you (the height of rudeness in my world).
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I have seen people tense up when they see my partner in the supermarket, his face scrunched up in thought as he tries to choose between breads, and then seen them relax as I put something in the basket he is holding and touch his arm. He can’t be THAT kind of Māori if he has a respectable-looking pākehā girlfriend.
Those tiny pieces of body language, too micro to even be micro aggressions, break my heart every time. When he recently saw an Airbnb host do a double take at his tā moko, he insisted on cleaning the cabin thoroughly before we left despite the fact that we had paid a cleaning fee. Being Māori means representing your people in every thing you do, even if it’s checking out of accommodation.
I grew up in a super ‘woke’ lefty family with a mum who had her eyes opened by second wave feminism just before I was born and who went back to university when I was a baby to learn te reo in order to teach bilingual maths in low decile schools.
My father turned his back on the conservative right wing views of his parents when he met my mum, though due to his enormously kind and tender heart this would have happened anyway. Upon retirement, dad began teaching adult literacy in Paremoremo while mum is up at 5am twice weekly to volunteer at Eat My Lunch.
Mum also refuses to engage with the trendy pākehā version of whakapapa (ancestry DNA test) because she’s always insisted we have Māori blood and is worried that we will turn out to be boring old whities.
All this is to say, I was raised to recognise and call out racism and to think that I understood te ao Māori. I spent the majority of the last 20 years living in Melbourne, and Kiwi are told that Australia is a country that is racist. New Zealanders are not racist; we are the multicultural integrated utopia.
In Melbourne I resided for 16 years in inner city suburbs where I lived squished in between statehouse tower blocks and million-dollar town houses. On the tram in rush hour I could have a homeless man muttering to himself to my left and a business woman on a conference call to my right.
Similarly in London, I was always in close proximity to people from all walks of life, and the same again the summer I lived in Berlin. On moving back to Auckland though, I caught up with a friend who had just come back from London and we were both struck by what a segregated city Auckland was.
While overseas we had both been reading the headlines from back home about poverty-stricken families living in cars or freezing garages, but in the middle class suburbs where our friends and families lived, we saw only late model cars driven by single occupants who parked them in spacious garages that could have housed multiple families, once all the snowboarding gear had been taken out.
We agreed that New Zealand doesn’t think of itself as a racist country because we’ve ghettoised all the brown people. I should add, this friend is herself Māori. She is a doctor, married to a British surgeon. She too has cultural passports that give her access to the pākehā world.
My partner now works in health care as a rangatahi (youth) support worker for an organisation that centres around treating whānau (patients/clients) using Māori methods of healing. That is my very basic pākehā explanation of it, though the reality is something so complex that I can hardly wrap my colonial brain around the concept.
Before meeting my partner, I always thought that I had a pretty good understanding of Māori culture: I grew up with a mum who spoke te reo and taught kapa haka, I learned te reo at school until the start of high school, I knew some of the Māori creation stories, I have been on plenty of marae and (oh god I cringe saying this) I have Māori friends!
Now that I have had the curtain drawn a tiny way back for me by having a Māori partner I can tell you this with certainty: I don’t know shit. And at times my coloniser brain really struggles to understand some Māori concepts, which is why I can’t adequately describe the organisation he works for.
It only remotely began to click into place for me when one of his colleagues, a mental health nurse who had for years worked in the mainstream health system, told me this story. A young male Māori had presented to her and her colleagues with symptoms of schizophrenia and periods of psychosis. None of the usual treatments seemed to be helping, and then a kaumātua from his iwi came to visit. The young man confided in the kaumātua that he had taken a rock from a tapu area of a stream and had been struggling ever since. The kaumātua arranged to go with the young man to take the rock back to the tapu water and return it, saying a karakia and asking for forgiveness. After this was done, the majority of the symptoms disappeared.
This is an incredibly simplified story of Māori culture triumphing over Western medicine, and one that places all the power in the hands of the unknown, the tapu, the spiritual, which is not truly what the organisation is trying to do. However it resonated with me and I saw for the first time how harmful it is for round pākehā to try and push square Māori through our holes. We tell them that our holes are the best way, the only way, but it is simply not true.
There are places that Western and Māori practises converge, and these can also be incredibly successful. Narrative therapy is a form of psychotherapy that closely resembles the practice known as pūrākau. A pūrāukauologist tells a pūrākau (creation story) to whānau and then they explore which parts the whānau relate to most. In discussing the character, or atua, often the link is made between the atua and what that whānau member is going through. It’s an effective way of identifying patterns of behaviour, and it links whānau to whakapapa, with the idea that if you know your whakapapa then you can know yourself.
Am I a self-loathing bleeding heart liberal? Yeah sure, sometimes; often in fact I look at my fellow pākehā and am angered and disgusted by their ignorance and their assurance of their superiority.
But having realised how ignorant I myself am, what I am trying to be is someone who looks and listens to people with open eyes, ears and heart. One system isn’t right for everyone; one size does not fit all. You need only look at how Māori health services around the country are hitting all the marks for success. Watch out DHBs, Māori health providers are coming for your funding – they can achieve things for Māori health that the pākehā system could never dream of.
The pākehā system has had 200 years to prove itself and it has failed Māori. This long delayed realisation is finally beginning to gain widespread traction via recent coverage from The Spinoff/RNZ and Alice Snedden with the brilliant Bad News series and the incredible RNZ podcast Getting Better from Emma Espiner.
New Zealand is a racist country and we are all racists. This racism affects both sides and keeps us siloed.
The sooner we can acknowledge this, the sooner we can recognise the insidious damage that colonialism has wrought, the sooner we can start to heal and the sooner we can begin to design systems that might actually help everyone.
And maybe then the borders can come down and we’ll no longer need cultural passports to travel within the country in which we all live.